MORAGA, Calif. -- The return of Saint Mary's men's basketball coach Randy Bennett brought the McKeon Pavilion crowd to its feet before Saturday's game against San Francisco.
By the end of the day, those fans had reason to cheer about a lot more than just their coach returning.
A scorching shooting performance in the second half and tough defense at the times that mattered most helped Saint Mary's pull away as the Gaels turned away their visitors from across the Bay with a 88-73 victory.
All five starters finished in double figures for Saint Mary's (13-5, 3-2 West Coast Conference), led by Stephen Holt with 21. James Walker III added a career-high 17, Brad Waldow had 16, Kerry Carter finished with 14 and Beau Levesque chipped in with 13. Avry Holmes led San Francisco (11-7, 4-2) with 17.
The win is Saint Mary's 17th straight over San Francisco and 11th in a row over the Dons in Moraga. Saint Mary's shot 56 percent as a team and 52 percent from 3-point range Saturday while limiting San Francisco to 51 percent from the floor and 28 percent from long distance.
First and foremost, Saturday's game featured the return of Bennett from a five-game hiatus and the Saint Mary's faithful showed their appreciation, giving the head coach a standing ovation the moment he hit the court.
"I was a little more prepared for it this time because of last year. It's still moving," Bennett said. "I appreciate being appreciated. I know that here, and that's why I've been here a long time. It's just nice. It's a nice gesture on their part."
Bennett's team responded in kind, pulling away in the second half to bury the Dons. A 14-0 run gave Saint Mary's the separation it was looking for, with a 3-pointer by Holt capping the run at the 11:14 mark with the Gaels up 68-47. San Francisco would never seriously challenge again, and Saint Mary's closed out its third conference win of the season.
That the Gaels were able to pull away was a credit to their resillience, as San Francisco began the second half with plenty of energy, cutting a 15-point halftime lead to seven within the first six minutes. That was as close as the Dons got though, as Saint Mary's knuckled down defensively, holding San Francisco scoreless for a shade over four minutes to help spark the offense.
Saint Mary's took a 43-28 lead to halftime thanks to a strong half of shooting and a defensive effort that allowed the Gaels to get out in transition and set up their offense.
As is normally the case when the Gaels are firing on all cylinders, anyone on the court was an option for offense in the first 20 minutes. Waldow finished with 10 points before the break to lead the way, but all eight players who saw the floor contributed points.
The half closed with a familiar sight for Gaels fans. An offensive rebound allowed Saint Mary's to hold for the final shot, and after working the clock down, Levesque found Carter wide open for 3. Carter knocked down the shot, and Saint Mary's took plenty of momentum into the locker room.
"(Our shot selection) was a lot better. That was the difference," Bennett said. "We've gotten a lot better defensively from five games ago but I did think our offense deteriorated. We were a little selfish, ball stuck in hands. I really thought that against Santa Clara. We're better than that. There's no way we should score 55 points in a game. Put it on me. We have too good of players to do that."
Saint Mary's gets a bit of a breather now as it prepares for its second meeting of the season against Pacific. This time, the Tigers will come to Moraga for Saturday's 5 p.m. game that will be broadcast exclusively online by TheW.TV. Live audio and statistics will be available on SMCGaels.com. For tickets, click the Tickets link on SMCGaels.com or call the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTx.